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Union Summer Organizes for Change with New York City Taxi Drivers

Photo Credit: Robert Struckman

The next time you take a cab, take a moment to think about the person driving the car. Taxi drivers typically do not have the same benefits as workers in other professions. But the National Taxi Workers Alliance (NTWA) is working to change that. 

NTWA in New York City is the largest taxi driver union in the United States working to ensure that its members can make a living wage. This summer, Sahar Khan, one of the nine New York Union Summer interns, is learning about NTWA's innovative strategies to grow the union's membership.

Khan was introduced to NTWA through her work with the Union Semester program at the Murphy Institute. The program gives students at affiliated New York universities the opportunity to have a full internship experience with a local union, while taking classes on labor.

After the semester was over, I wanted to continue my experience with NTWA because I became so involved and wanted to keep doing something for the drivers. The executive director of NTWA, Bhairavi Desai, mentioned the AFL-CIO Union Summer, and I applied.

As the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant worker, Union Summer has been a very personal experience for Khan, something that she describes as being perfect for someone of her background.

I see my father in every driver, and I know how hard they work for their living. They don’t speak the language, yet they take people from all over to their destinations. It’s quite amazing.

She also loves the fact that she is able to use her language skills in a completely new way.

I speak Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. NTWA members are mostly from South Asia, and it [is] an asset to have someone who can speak different languages.

There’s no such thing as an ordinary day at the NTWA offices, but the team works continuously to maintain good relationships with their members and are rewarded by having more members sign up every day.

Khan explains:

Sometimes we have really angry drivers come to the office demanding the union’s support. Sometimes we need more support from the drivers and we reach out to them for support, which we graciously get, too.

A big concern for drivers is the amount of tickets they receive—a problem that can lead to them losing their license and subsequently their livelihood. Khan explains that being a taxi driver in New York City is extremely stressful and its NTWA’s job to fight for them and reassure them that they will have a living income.

“We take their stress,” Khan says. "And let them leave the office with a smile.”

As an intern with Union Summer, Khan also had the opportunity to experience history when NTWA won the battle on raising the fares on July 12, 2012. It was an experience Khan calls “exciting and unforgettable.”

Khan says:

Once we won, we all shouted, hugged, clapped…everyone started to tear up. The alliance has worked so hard, day and night; sleepless nights and finally, we have this victory.

For the first time, taxi drivers in New York have access to a health and disability fund, giving them the resources to deal with the dangerous and exhausting conditions of the job. This victory means the elimination of the 5 percent credit card charge that is lost with every transaction.

Khan also will forever be grateful for the opportunity to learn from Desai, who has been a true inspiration.

She makes me proud to be a woman. She has taken charge of an organization that is male dominated, she has proven that even in a South Asian culture such as ours, you can fight and have power. She has devoted her life into this organization and her determination has taught me to always take the extra step toward my goals.

Eventually Khan hopes to receive her J.D., which she will use to continue the fight for working people.

I wanted to experience what it’s like to be part of the fighting population. I want my voice to be heard and I want to be that change—Union Summer gave me that opportunity.

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